The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) purchase of $52 million (€51.2 million) worth of Pacific whiting, shrimp and rockfish marks yet another unprecedented milestone in US government seafood purchasing.

Lori Steele with West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

"This is a significant increase from last year's 'inaugural' USDA purchase," Lori Steel, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, told IntraFish.

Last year marked the first time ever the USDA purchased Pacific whiting, shrimp and rockfish for its Section 32 food assistance programs, according to Steele. And this year's announcement is triple the amount awarded last year, which totaled nearly $17 million (€16.7 million).

"This has been a multi-year effort that was really prompted or accelerated because of the pandemic," Steele said of why USDA purchases have ramped up over the last two years.

"We, the West Coast seafood industry, have been trying to get into the USDA seafood food commodity purchasing market for quite some time."

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The value of seafood purchases fell dramatically in 2020 from the year prior, with the pandemic in full swing in the United States and the USDA focusing its seafood purchases on helping companies impacted by disruptions in the food system supply chain and food insecurity resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But seafood purchasing values climbed right back up in 2021, with the Biden Administration making the largest single seafood purchase in USDA history at $70.9 million (€58.7 million).

The USDA said the purchases were meant to help food producers weather the ongoing food chain supply disruptions caused by COVID-19.

At the same time, major seafood species such as Alaska pollock remained in short supply due to COVID-related production shortfalls, pushing prices higher. As a result, the USDA looked to rockfish fillets, Pacific salad shrimp and Pacific whiting fillets to fill in the gaps.

Steele said the fact that the USDA plans to purchase seafood beyond pollock two years after the start of the pandemic means the purchasing trend is likely here to stay.

"What we’re seeing now is we had a really successful year," she explained of 2021 contracts. "The USDA likes our products, and this year really highlights we’re building on success and developing and growing a really good relationship with the USDA."

The USDA approved the product purchases in June, and in July issued a pre-solicitation notice. It has not published an official solicitation notice, the government agency told IntraFish.

Steele told IntraFish she expects the official bidding process to start in the next month, with the USDA looking to award all of the bids by the end of this fiscal year in September.

Bornstein Seafoods CEO Colin Bornstein told IntraFish recently the company received its first-ever USDA contract last year for Pacific salad shrimp. While the majority of that contract went to seafood processing giant Pacific Seafoods, he said he looks forward to seeing more USDA bids applicable to his business this year and in the future.

The US West Coast seafood industry also has significant backing from federal lawmakers in its efforts to gain a larger share of USDA contracts.

In April, Oregon Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden led colleagues in a letter urging USDA to continue purchasing West Coast seafood.

The $52 million will be distributed among three main seafood products:

  • Pacific pink shrimp - $12 million (€11.8 million)
  • Pacific whiting fillets - $22 million (€21.6 million)
  • Pacific rockfish fillets - $18 million (€17.7 million)

The value of US seafood purchased by the USDA has exploded over the past several years, making the government one of the largest purchasers of Alaska pollock and other seafood.